Thursday, May 23, 2013

May 23: William Harvey Carney

On this date in History ... May 23, 1900:  

Sergeant William Harvey Carney is belatedly awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery on July 18, 1863, while fighting for the Union cause as a member of the 54th Massachusetts Colored, becoming the first African American to perform actions that merited the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military honor. Here is his amazing story (which gives me chills every time I tell it!!!):  

“The Civil War was almost two years old when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. With that historic step, for the first time, black American's were encouraged to enlist in the Union Army. Among the enlistees was a young man named William Carney.” 

At the battle at Ft. Wagner, in South Carolina (this battle was depicted in the movie "Glory" (in this clip) ), the Sergeant. carrying the flag was shot. Carney grabbed the flag before it could hit the ground. With a gunshot wound in his leg, he carried the flag & led the advance to the Confederate fort, gaining entrance & planting the Stars and Stripes. Too late, he realized he was alone. Everyone else in his platoon had been killed or wounded. As he was approached by Confederate soldiers, rather than drop the flag and flee for his life, he wrapped the flag tight and ran down an embankment. In chest high water, with the flag held high, he was shot in the chest, the arm and the leg. He continued to struggle forward even when another bullet grazed his head.  

“From the safety of the distance to which they had retreated, what remained of the valiant warriors of the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry watched the brave Sergeant struggle towards safety. A retreating member of the 100th New York passed Carney and, seeing the severity of his wounds said, "Let me carry that flag for you." With indomitable courage Sergeant Carney replied, "No one but a member of the 54th should carry the colors." Despite the sounds of rifle and cannon fire that followed him, Carney struggled on. Another enemy bullet found its mark, grazing his head, but Carney wouldn't quit.”  

When he reached safety, collapsing from his wounds, he said, “Boys, I only did my duty.  The flag never touched the ground.”

And with those words, William Harvey Carney, who had been born a slave, whose father had purchased his freedom when he was 15 years old, who had joined the Union Army shortly after President Lincoln signed the bill that allowed him to join, who wanted to fight to preserve the country that had enslaved him, William Harvey Carney, that day, became the first African American to earn the country's highest honor, the Medal of Honor.

Sources for this story include:

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